May Day, International Workers’ Day, takes on greater importance every year, as we see hard-won workers’ rights being taken away by increasingly regressive and repressive governments around the world.
This year, May Day marks the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, which is generally recognized as the most significant strike in Canadian labour history.
The Graphic History Collective, a group of activists, artists, writers and researchers who produce people’s histories in accessible formats, has produced two excellent resources that give us an opportunity to learn more about this strike as well as strikes in Canada more generally.
Until I came upon “Direct Action Gets the Goods: A Graphic History of the Strike in Canada”, I had no idea that the first strike in this country occurred in 1820, when Cree boatmen in Oxford House, Manitoba, refused to work for the Hudson Bay Company until their pay was increased from ten to 40 pelts per season, to bring it in line with that being received by others doing the same work elsewhere in the province.
Over the next almost two centuries, workers in Canada have gone on strike to reduce their hours of work, to demand that government regulate working hours, to win the right to bargain collectively, for higher wages, to end racism and unsafe working conditions, to secure maternity leave, to stop the privatization of public services, in solidarity with suspended co-workers, to oppose government policy and to protest sexual harassment. While not always successful, many of these strikes have led to improvements for workers.
The Winnipeg General Strike did not happen in a vacuum, but rather as a result of a number of factors, including high levels of unemployment, inflation, poor wages and dismal working conditions; all of which contributed to labour unrest. Labour leaders in Western Canada met in the spring of 1919 and called for the creation of “One Big Union,” to bring together workers from all different trades and fields to fight for their rights.
A general strike was called in May, when negotiations between management and labour in the building and metal trades broke down and 30,000 workers left their jobs to call for support for the principle of collective bargaining as well as for better wages and improved working conditions.
Despite the numbers of striking workers and their passion for social justice, the strike ended in defeat. When 25,000 strikers gathered for a demonstration in mid-June, Winnipeg’s mayor read the Riot Act and unleashed the Royal North West Mounted Police, who rode through the crowds on horseback, beating strikers with clubs and firing guns at them. Federal troops occupied the city, and the strike ended on June 25, with few of the strikers’ demands having been met.
The role of women
Among the first to walk out on May 15th, were the “Hello Girls,” telephone operators in Winnipeg, who were kept from going hungry during the strike by the workers’ kitchen, run by Helen Jury Armstrong of the Women’s Labour League.
While women were at the forefront of Canada’s largest and most influential strike, women today still struggle to find fairness at work. The gender pay gap remains large; women are often able to find only part-time, casual or precarious employment; affordable child care is inadequate to meet the needs of working families; women’s ability to work is negatively affected by their disproportionate share of familial responsibilities, and workplace harassment is all too common in many workplaces.
May Day 2019
We come to May Day 2019 at a challenging time for anyone concerned with social justice. The challenging global economy provides a convenient excuse for increasing numbers of conservative and right-wing governments to abandon established commitments to the rights of workers, just as they are abandoning commitments to the environment, health care and education.
With more and more back-to-work legislation in this country, the right to strike itself is in jeopardy. As Bruno Dobrusin writes:
“In the last few years in Canada we have seen the right to strike under attack, affecting especially public sector unions, reinforcing restrictions that already exist for labour action in the private sector. . . Every time a strike starts to noticeably disrupt people’s lives – the lives of business owners perhaps most importantly — back-to-work legislation is brought in. . . . [T]he moment a strike, even a legal strike, threatens economic or political interests, back-to-work is the answer.”
Perhaps the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike is a good time to remember one of the conclusions of the Royal Commission established to look into the strike:
Solidarity, my friends: it is the only way forward.